The late rounds of the NFL Draft are events that the most casual fans rarely find interesting or even pay attention to. The hit and miss rate for the latter half of the draft are extremely one-sided, but sometimes some teams get lucky and strike gold. The best example to date is Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown. Arguably one of the best in the game, the small school receiver (Central Michigan) was an afterthought after being drafted in the sixth round of the 2010 draft.
Despite being in the prime of his career, the No. 195th overall selection has already cemented himself as one of the best players in franchise history. The Minnesota Vikings are starting to get a similar feeling. In 2015, the franchise drafted receiver Stefon Diggs with the 146th overall pick in the fifth round.
Diggs was highly touted and a five-star prospect coming out of high school, but in his career at Maryland he was often injured. Missing the final six games of his sophomore season due to a broken fibula, he bounced back to have a marginal junior season for the Terrapins, collecting 62 catches, 792 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Definitely not eye-popping stats, but Diggs made plenty of splash plays as a return man and for an offense that struggled mightily. The talented receiver continued his career with the Vikings, but once again faced some early adversity.
Inactive for the first three games of his rookie season, Diggs finally got his chance on the road in Week 4 vs. the Denver Broncos. Since that moment he has not looked back. Rewarded handsomely this offseason with a five-year extension worth in excess of $81 million, Diggs is once again already off to a red-hot start in 2018. Through two weeks, he already has garnered 12 catches, 171 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Route running. It’s a term that’s closely attached to receivers, because it is one of the biggest traits that they are judged upon. A lot of times we hear the terms “route tree” or “specific routes” used when describing certain receivers.
The best receivers in the league are able to master a certain package of routes, but are able to present them in different ways — meaning that if their offense asks them to run primarily short-to-intermediate routes, the best threats have ways of making them look different every time. This is an area where Diggs excels at.
He is a receiver that I like to call “quicker than fast.” He is a very quick twitch receiver that is able to be make extremely violent movements with his body in the blink of an eye, but he doesn’t have the longevity of speed to consistently run past defensive backs consistently.
Let’s take a look at why he’s been so successful thus far.
The first clip occurred during the Vikings Week 1 contest against the San Francisco 49ers where Diggs (#14) experienced much success despite it not showing much in the stat sheet. One standout play came during the second quarter against second-year cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon.
His detailed route running was once again on display. At the beginning of the route, he gives a quick foot fire, meaning that he stutters his feet at the line of scrimmage. The foot fire enables Diggs to get a quick read on Witherspoon and to see if he’s trying to get his hands on him in an attempt to jam him, which will alter his intended route path. Once Diggs notices that Witherspoon is only attempting to mirror him and not get his hands on him, he takes a nice outside release, which is perfect for the route that he’s running.
The next stage of the route is where the fourth-year receiver shows off his advancement and nuance. He notices that he’s hip-to-hip with the defender and Witherspoon now attempts to get his hands on him, but Diggs uses a high arm swat that enables him to bypass the defender and gain the natural leverage to now run past him to score the touchdown. His awareness and savvy did not stop there though.
In man-to-man coverage, some cornerbacks are taught to keep their backs to the quarterbacks and play the hands of the receiver instead of turning their head around and tracking the ball while it is in the air. When the receiver flashes their hands, this is when defenders will attempt to swat at their arms and hands in order to break up the pass. Knowing this, Diggs flashes his hands at the very last second possible and just in time to secure the catch, then shielding the ball away from Witherspoon.
So far this season, Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo has been creative in the ways that he’s used Diggs in the red zone. Primarily used on the outside in the open field, Diggs transitions to the slot to create mismatches the closer the team gets to the end zone. Matched up in man coverage here versus Tramon Williams, DeFilippo is known to use motions and shifts in the red zone because it makes the defense show their hand and tip the coverage that they are attempting to run. Sending Diggs in motion pre-snap, Williams runs with Diggs, which reveals that the Green Bay Packers defense is in man coverage.
Knowing this, DeFilippo is creative with the motion, as he quickly motions Diggs back in the same direction that he originally started from. The reasoning behind this is to create a natural rub with the outside receiver and because there is an extreme amount of traffic for Williams to navigate through in order to successfully guard Diggs. His awareness is once again on full display, as he climbs up the field first on his route knowing that he has a slant route by Kyle Rudolph (No. 82) on the outside that is going to shield the cornerback away from ever having a chance of guarding him.
One of the best routes of the 2018 season so far came in a crucial situation during the Viking’s Week 2 contest against the Packers. Down 29-27 and needing a two-point conversion to tie the game, the offense called on their ascending receiver and he made their bet worthwhile.
Diggs is running a “sluggo” route here, which is a double move consisting of giving the illusion of running a slant route. He understands that the ball is on the 3-yard line and that he doesn’t have much room or time to operate with. Having this mental awareness, he still knows that he has to sell the slant route to the defensive back that’s guarding him in order to create room to run a fade route.
His aiming point for that specific route is the pylon in the back corner of the end zone. He executes this technique flawlessly by taking one influencing step towards the slant route and turning his head and eyes back to the quarterback. This gives the illusion to the cornerback that he may be trying to run a very quick slant route when he’s actually only trying to bait him. The most impressive part of this entire route though is how Diggs avoids Williams’ attempt to grab him with his right hand. That is the part of the route that makes the receiver among the elite route runners in the league. His ability to not only stop on an instant and redirect, but to also avoid the collision with Williams and to successfully get two feet in-bounds is outstanding.
Nuance, the understanding of angles, and savviness are the three big components as to why the Vikings feel as if they have struck gold with Stefon Diggs. He’s proven to be a bright spot on a receiving corps that is described as arguably the best duo in the entire NFL, alongside Adam Thielen.
If he’s able to play an entire 16 games and continue his upward development, Diggs has a chance to be among some elite company and join some of the best receivers in the league overall.